Who Are We Protecting by Censoring 'Huck Finn'?

It's not the kids -- who hear the n-word all the time -- but the adults who are uncomfortable with it.

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It reminds me of a searing passage from Shelby Steele's A Dream Deferred. He points out, to a white man who helped administer a Great Society program, that the program and ones like it didn't end up making people's lives better. The white man is livid, insisting just that the people were grateful, refusing to engage the question of the program's effectiveness.

In other words, this man was all about what the Great Society programs did for him, not black people. I regretfully suspect the same thing in the teachers' clutching of their pearls at the prospect of teaching a book full of characters using That Word. They aren't really afraid that their students will leave the classroom shouting the n-word at black kids. They just feel that the way to show they are good people is to studiously hold their noses and turn away from any embodiment whatsoever of that hideous slur. In a conversation I had with a white person about this, she actually insisted, "But the word offends me!"

It's as weak as a Victorian holding his ears at the mere utterance of a curse word, and every bit as performative.

We've come a long way indeed when there are cases in which white people are more offended by the n-word than the people it refers to. Call it progress, I guess. But it's a shame that it comes at the cost of teaching a bowdlerized version of, of all things, a book that captures the story of America between two covers.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.   

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John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The RootHe is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

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